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Railway Chaplains – On a mission from God

One summer’s evening amidst the confused crowds and staccato announcements at Euston a man in PPE strode across the concourse. Writes Andy Milne

On his back was stencilled the word Chaplain. Wires down at Camden Road had all but paralysed the throat at Euston and no trains were running. Instead of sitting out the crisis in the Exmouth Arms across the road I followed this tall figure as he parted the crowds like the Red Sea.

The Reverend Miles Mitson was one of a team of railway chaplains charged with looking after all staff, track workers and, on occasion, passengers. ‘We’re here for all faiths and none,’ said Miles as we sat in his small office below the station drinking tea. The railway chaplains are among a number of hidden strengths the rail industry can call on.

Addressing insecurities

Arguably the railway is better than most industries at addressing human insecurities. Such skill has arisen more by luck than judgement during the tortuous evolution of the system. Put basically a passenger boarding a train puts her safety in the hands of the driver, train crew, signaller and track worker. The safety-critical nature of the industry makes for a very different working relationship between railway staff and the people they serve.

Often unremarked by the wider public the railway, over the years, has become adept at helping its people with appropriate counsel and guidance. It took a long time to evolve but the modern railway, often unwittingly, uses tried and tested leadership techniques, safety specialists, its own police force, local union branches, welfare organisations and initiatives like the Samaritans.

Among this the railway chaplains sit right in the brickwork, an essential mortar in the industry’s emotional architecture.

The National Rail Chaplaincy Crevice has 24 chaplains covering the entire network. Eight of them are funded by the London City Mission. Similar organisations exist in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Nicola Goncalves, Scottish railway chaplain based in Edinburgh, attended a conference in Hungary last August, designed to encourage international versions of the railway mission.

You’re too thick

Current chief executive is the Reverend Liam Johnston, a genial Yorkshireman, of Scots blood, brought up largely in Catterick Garrison – his father was in the army. Liam, who is dyslexic, became a Christian as an eight year old.

Aged 18 he felt called to enter Christian ministry but was told by his local vicar that he was too thick. Liam, a practical man, became a baker instead. At the age of 21 he was working for Tescos and attending an Assemblies of God church. Every little certainly helped Liam.

Encouraged by his wife he revisited the idea of ministry. Local Pentecostal minister, David Rivers, proved much more encouraging and Liam subsequently read a three year degree at Sheffield University. To start with he pastored a small church part time and came upon the Railway Mission quite by chance.

The Railway Mission works in partnership with the London City Mission, founded in 1835, and together they provide the National Rail Chaplaincy Service. The Mission is a registered charity (number 1128024) and is overseen by a voluntary group of directors. Executive Director, Liam Johnston, is responsible for co- ordinating the work of the Mission’s chaplains and maintaining a close link with leaders across the rail industry.

Pastoral care

Railway chaplains provide pastoral care for rail staff. It is complementary to the well-organised services of railway HR departments. ‘We’re able to bridge the gap,’ said Liam. He recounts the sad story of two girls who died on a railway line in west Wales. They and their families had been trespassing on the railway and were hit by a train.

The trespass was the subject of a court case. Reaching agreement to erect a memorial to the girls near the site was difficult. It was Dick Fearn, at the time in charge of Railtrack’s midland zone, who suggested bringing in the railway chaplain. Liam was able to talk to all parties as a neutral cleric and agreement was reached. It is a resource that is available 24/7 to railway staff and managers.

Jobs range from helping deal with the results of industrial injury, coping with the gruelling aftermath of a railway suicide to holding memorial services and accompanying a lonely member of staff taking his dog to be put down. Railway chaplains work on site alongside the police and incident officers at major rail disasters. The real value of the railway chaplains lies in their extensive knowledge of the rail network and the people who work on it.

Chaplains spend much of their working day out visiting mess rooms, control centres, stations and booking- on points just getting to know staff. Familiarity means when problems occur talking to railway chaplains, whatever your background, does not feel like talking to a stranger or management. Faith is not the issue. Knowing what is said goes no further and that you’re being listened to without one eye on the clock is of immeasurable value to railway staff.

Drinking and gambling

The origins of the Railway Mission date right back to the start of the railway age. The railway was built by gangs of men often living in huge camps. For many years the emerging railway was a huge consumer of men and boys. Think of the Victorian railways and a picture of a bewhiskered station master comes to mind or a smart conductor flagging off his train.

Alongside these doyens of the industry was a hidden army of track workers, navigators, carpenters and bricklayers. The sheer physical labour needed to keep the railway operational in a world without mechanical diggers and motorised road vehicles is hard to imagine.

Safety standards were abysmal; accommodation often appalling. Downtime for many of these men was spent drinking and gambling. Prostitution was endemic in railway towns. Drunkenness and crime bedevilled the new industry.

The efforts of early Christian missioners were widely supported by railway company bosses with a commitment that may have surprised their detractors. Railway missioners were greeted with no less relief by the local constabulary. Railway chiefs, many of them practising Christians, were happy to give small parcels of land for the building of chapels and meeting halls. The Railway Mission itself was formed in 1881 amalgamating various groups and with more coming on stream later.

It’s a non-denominational organisation and is not meant to supplant local churches. At its peak, just after the First World War, the Railway Mission had 270 branches often operating from rooms or buildings put up on railway land.

Railway Signal

Many of these buildings survive – often simple structures made of corrugated iron. The tin tabernacles have become a railway feature in their own right. Other chapels, more solid structures of brick and mortar, are still in operation.

Gresty Road Chapel in Crewe is now run by an independent evangelical church. The last chapel still owned by the Railway Mission is in Brighton. The Railway Mission itself was set up in 1881. A year later it started publishing a magazine, ‘The Railway Signal’ running out 12,000 copies – railway staff were thought to total 400,000 at the time. Meetings were advertised and circulation grew.

The high level of injuries on the railways led the Railway Mission to open special homes for recovering staff. In pre-NHS Britain these were heavily oversubscribed. Back in the 19th century the answer might have been to physically build buildings to accommodate men and women anxious to meet together and practise their faith. Many were in any event far away from the home and such places provided a measure of comfort – beyond the bar and pool hall.

Railway missioners back then were ahead of their time in an awareness of the evils of alcohol abuse. Long before the British Railways Board outlawed drinking at work altogether, the Temperance Movement was at work urging railway staff to renounce the demon drink. Accidents caused by alcohol were a tragic part of the industrial landscape.

The situation of the Railway Mission changed radically after the Second World War. Branches dwindled to 80. The focus of the Railway Mission changed from a building-based ministry to the idea of getting out and meeting staff at work.

A psychological cuddle

British Rail in the 1970s with its growing fear of offending the treasury had a different relationship with the railway missionary society than the bosses of yester-year. Permission was only granted to talk to staff in the place of work in 1976. Then in 1982 the then chairman, Robert Reid, met the Railway Mission and discussed what they did.

At the time BR was anxious to make cost savings on welfare provision. Reid knew a good resource when he saw one and, a compassionate man, realised the continuing work of the railway chaplains was of direct benefit to staff.

After the meeting he wrote to the five BR Regional General Managers commending the work of the Railway Mission and asking them to make sure staff were able to speak with chaplains any time they liked. This was important at the time as BR terms and conditions prohibited staff from talking about their work to third parties – namely the press.

Nowadays the emphasis at the Railway Mission is on building relationships with staff, meeting them, talking and listening. No attempt is made to proselytise; that only comes later if asked to do so. Railway chaplains provide an ear – a psychological cuddle.

Privatisation might have spelled the end for the Railway Mission. However the trauma surrounding the whole enterprise meant the chaplains were sought out all the more by railway staff at all levels. The work continued and rail chiefs realised its value.

Quite unwittingly the railway tragedies of Ladbroke Grove in 1996, Southall in 1997 and Hatfield in 2000 threw a media spotlight on the railway chaplains. This further reinforced industry support for the Railway Mission.

Funding Challenge

Funding has always been a challenge. A third of the Railway Mission’s funding comes from private donations by staff and Christian fellowships. Quantifying the benefit of the chaplains to the industry is difficult.

In 2002 the Railway Mission made a presentation to a meeting of the board of the Association of Train Operating Companies. Adrian Shooter, the head of Chiltern Railways, stood up and said they’d back the mission and promptly pledged money.

The rest followed suit and it was agreed to support the railway chaplains. Is it a proviso of franchise operation, I ask in my naivety? No, says Liam, but, with a grin, it was minuted. ‘And we remind them now and again.’ Network Rail then matched the train companies. Recently budget constraints have reduced Network Rail contributions.

All chaplains at the Railway Mission are de facto police chaplains and have police identification. They enjoy great relations with local and railway police. Most important the chaplains are accepted by railway staff – and passengers too.

It is a strange job and their value defies definition. In one picture on the web site a chaplain is walking alone down a safe path across a depot. Even amidst rush hour Euston that afternoon Miles Mitson cut a lonely figure.

However that picture mirrors the loneliness of the driver, the guard and track worker. In fact it is perhaps good to know we are not alone. The Railway Mission quietly backs up the cause of railways and all who work in them. They are as disparate as the people they work with.

Great Train Robbery

The Reverend Dr Richard Cook, railway chaplain in the north west, worked for many years as a railway guard. After attending a Billy Graham rally at Liverpool’s Anfield Road stadium he became a Christian and is now an ordained minister.

Cook once officiated at an on-board wedding staged on a TransPennine Express service. Last year he presided at a special service for staff. The 50th anniversary of the Great Train Robbery may have grabbed headlines but less widely known was the Memorial Service held at Crewe on 8th August 2013.

Crewe was the home depot of driver Jack Mills, coshed by the gang, and his second man, David Whitby. The romanticism built up around the train hijack has appalled drivers and staff. Mills and Whiby both died long before their time.

Richard Cook held the service in the old drivers mess room on platform 12 at Crewe. It was the rail industry’s way of stating what is important and emphasising that it stands by its own. When the media has lost interest and the klieg lights are taken down the chaplains are still there for those who mourn.

Byron Lewis, a railway chaplain in the south east says, ‘Once someone realises I am the chaplain they might tell me about a colleague who is ill or has suffered a bereavement or emotional upheaval. Or they’ll open up with concerns of their own in the knowledge that I’m here to help, not to judge… I can then arrange a hospital or home visit or to meet at a station for a chat to try and talk through any problems.’

The Railway Mission is an example of the out working of the historic commandment – common to all major faiths – love your neighbour as yourself. ‘People are often inquisitive about why I have chosen to share my life with Christ and I am happy to explain more,’ says Byron. ‘But I am also here to provide non-religious as well as religious support. It’s that mix of pastoral and spiritual care and being able to meet people from all walks of life that I enjoy.’

Lucky to survive

Practical assistance is important. One chaplain, Andrew Hall, in the Midlands, knew a track worker who was electrocuted working on OHLE. ‘He was lucky to survive,’ says Andrew. ‘I was at the hospital 15 minutes after he arrived.’ The chaplain stayed with him at the hospital. The man was from the north but had been working in the Midlands.

‘Later when he was transferred to hospital nearer home, I arranged for a railway chaplain to visit him.’ It is unusual for anyone to survive an OHLE incident. But this man did and is now back at work. Clearly having a railway chaplain by your bedside is a good way to boost the efforts of professional medics.

Chaplains also help reconcile the industry with the public it serves. Miles Mitson ran the Memorial Service for Hatfield at St Albans Cathedral in 2001.

For passenger welfare is all part of the job. Cook recounts a train journey where he saw a woman crying in a carriage. He approached her and she told him her mother was dying. She’d been to see the local vicar who gave her a bible and shooed her out the door with a brief, ‘the answer’s in there,’ salutation. Ultimately the bible may be a help but the lady on the train needed the word made flesh.

The chaplain was able to listen, to lend a sympathetic ear and to be there for her as long as he was needed. It’s a concept time-obsessed modern man finds difficult but in a faith where a thousand years are like the blink of an eye, railway chaplains don’t worry over much about real time chronology.

My thanks to Liam Johnston, Dudley Clark and Andrew Hall for their help with this and the staff at Virgin Trains, Birmingham New Street passenger lounge.

1 COMMENT

  1. Love your neighbour, without conditions! Well done, Marc, for a very well-presented article, and all in the Railway Mission supporting this vital service.

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